For the third time, I have found myself drawn to a Japanese time travel movie while on the plane. First, it was Summer Time Machine Blues, way back in 2006. Then it was Orange, in 2016. Now, it’s Cafe Funiculi Funicula, a melodramatic, sentimental supernatural drama about time traveling coffee. It’s not my favorite movie, but it was emotional and interesting, and I think it’s sealed the deal for me on Japanese time travel movies–I’m going to be checking for them on every plane ride I take from now on.
Some spoilers here.
The movie is about a cafe owned by the family of Kazu, a young woman who hides the pain of her past behind a demure smile and a life committed to serving in a coffee shop with a strange quality: if one sits in a particular seat, and has a cup of coffee poured for them by a woman from Kazu’s family (of which she is the only one), they can travel to any other point in time. But there are limitations: you can’t leave the cafe, your actions do not change the past, you can only stay until the cup of coffee gets cold, and if you don’t drink the coffee before it gets cold you will get trapped forever as sort of a restless time-lost ghost. This is what happened to one particular woman, who day and night sits in the seat, drinking her coffee and reading her book, but never responding to or interacting with anyone. But…occasionally she gets up to use the bathroom (this oddity is remarked upon by the characters, but never explained) during which time other people can use the seat.
And in a series of episodes, various other characters do exactly that. A woman returns to a week earlier to talk to her best friend and confess her feelings for him before he leaves for a job overseas. A man speaks to his wife in the years before she was suffering from dementia. The owner of a local bar speaks to her estranged sister before her untimely death. As per the rules, none of these interactions alter the past, but each motivates the character to change their futures.
Through all of this, Kazu is being pursued romantically by Ryosuke, a kind and straightforward boy who is interested in using the chair to see his dead cat again, before he realizes he can’t because the cat never entered the cafe. When their relationship gets serious, it stirs up Kazu’s fears and regrets about her own past, sending her into an emotional tailspin. If she could only use the seat herself, there might be chance of her coming to terms with these issues, but alas she is the only woman from the family currently living (and it does not work for her to serve the coffee to herself), so it seems hopeless until Ryosuke comes up with an inventive solution.
This solution doesn’t quite make sense, as it leads to a situation where time travel to the past does indeed effect the future, but it’s vague enough that you can imagine potential explanations. The movie itself is not interested in offering explanations at all, certainly not for any of the mechanics of the time travel. Instead, it focuses its energy on developing the emotional journeys of Kazu and the other characters. And those journeys are satisfying, even if none of the movie’s surprises are not guessable before they are revealed.
The movie is directed by Ayuko Tsukahara, who, like pretty much any contemporary Japanese director, I’m completely unfamiliar with. It’s based on a novel called Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Junwa Kawaguchi. It’s a clean looking film which lacks any sort of visual dynamism, save for the actual time travel sequences where the subject appears to be falling backwards into a giant cafe-shaped swimming pool. Still I found the characters to be engaging and the sentiment, though obvious, still pulled me in.